the strange career of jim crow


The Strange Career of Jim Crow is an intriguing literary work that provides a fascinating look at decisive moments in American history through the eyes of Comer Van Woodward. It captures the perspective and happenings of events that eventually impacted the civil right movement and historic interactions between the races. The book clearly offers a comprehensible and illuminating analysis of the history of Jim Crow laws, while presenting some proof that segregation in the South dated only to the 1890s. Comer Van Woodward also argues that during slavery, the two races: black and white, were really not as separated as they were under statutes of segregation or the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s. He is critical of the segregation statutes and his book supports the equality of races.

The Strange Career of Jim Crow is a book that provides historical insight of events that shaped the Southern United States during the nineteenth century. The book was written by Comer Van Woodward, a Southern historian, who was born in 1908 and whose work has brought illumination to series of actions that assist in shaping the American history. Woodward, felt that empirical research was needed to shed light on statutes enacted in the Southern United States in the late nineteenth century and how these statutes impacted the lives of black and whites. The book was first published in 1955 and provides an insightful look at the actions of the different races, namely black and white and their interaction and interdependency. The book traces the origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” which is said to be coined in the nineteenth century and which gained popularity and general consensus to mean Negroes. The book also talks about “Jim Crow laws”: a set of statutes that was said to be discriminatory against Negroes in the southern United States. These laws came about during the late nineteenth century. These laws were enacted effectively to curtail the freedom of African American as a result of a perceived threat of social mixing and direct competition for jobs by both races.

The Strange Career of Jim Crow attempts to provide answers to the questions about southern heritage and exactly what the south was really like during the nineteenth century. Woodward was born in the south and straight away discovered out that there was a profound history rooted in prejudices and a fight for ascendancy of races.

The book seeks to provide scholarship into the exciting and rich nature and history of the United States’ policies pertaining to its relationships with African Americans, especially in the South of the country. Woodward’s book successfully challenges the stereotypical view held by many historians; namely that historically, white domination and lopsided treatment of Negroes in the south United States were constants and emblematic of the political and social landscapes since the birth of the nation. This book earnestly and decisively looked at evidence which seemed to have been previously overlooked by many historians and provided literary scholars and countless students of history with a new foundation for more study on racial policies within the United States. In the book, Woodward posits in his thesis that segregation of the races did not materialize when slavery was abolished, but indeed gained foothold after decades of trial and error in race relations that came to a head in the 1890s. During the 1890s, Woodward argued that there was a remarkable outpouring of racial radicalism which led to the proliferation of statutes supporting racial segregation. Interestingly, the Strange Career of Jim Crow evolved from a series of lectures by Woodward into the popular book based on race relations and it is as relevant today as it was during the 1950s when the book was originally published. Woodward’s research in the book cites supporting evidence that racial segregation emerged after 1865 because of the demands of African-Americans that they not be completely excluded from public accommodations.

The book made an essential contribution to historical findings as it centers on the history of segregation in the nineteenth-century Southern United States while emphasizing on significant changes in race relations during the 1890s. Essentially, the book covers both the history of segregation and desegregation and helps us to understand why events took place and how they impacted the people in the south.

The introduction and first four chapters of Woodward’s book “Of Old Regimes and Reconstructions,” “Forgotten Alternatives,” “Capitulation to Racism,” and “The Man on the Cliff,”  deals with what the author observed to be the experience of slavery in  the United States and the segregation statutes that were eventually formed to keep Negroes subordinated. Woodward did not equate Jim Crow laws dealing with the segregation of the races with physical force and neither did he link this segregation to any economic activity of association between African-Americans and slaveholding whites during slavery and he therefore postulates that Jim Crow practices did not originate in the South’s Peculiar Institution (pp. 12-13). Woodward argues in his book that segregation was impractical during slavery (pp12). The importance of monitoring slaves ensured that active and constant contacts were the order of the day for the system to function and flourish. He advocated that Jim Crow practices and laws initially appeared in the antebellum North and in the some cities of the antebellum South (pp. 13-21). He further argued in his book that reconstruction was a period of considerable instability and testing of race relations between blacks and whites in which a cruel and inflexible racial system had not yet solidified (pp. 25-29). Re reiterated that the inflexible system of racial divide was not in place for the fifteen years that followed “Redemption” in the mid- to late 1870s (pp. 31-65). Woodward argued that a dramatic series of events or incidents happened during the 1890s and these led to radical white supremacism and an austere limitation on how whites defined the limits of racial relations via disfranchisement and legal segregation(pp. 67-102). In his eyes, the Jim Crow statutes were a significant growth of segregation practice which were in effect at the time and gave the state authority to effect changes impacting racial interactions (pp. 102-109).

The first part of the book is remarkable in the way it supports our understanding concerning the formation of racial ideologies. In fact, Woodward’s analysis in his book is consistent with our modern theoretical understanding of race interactions and relations. Woodward’s analysis posits that the real understandings of race are changeable and dynamic and are formed in particular historical context governing political rhetoric, social experience and law.

Woodward research did not stop with the Jim Crow laws, as this illuminating book also looked at how the segregation system came under increasing challenge during the 1930s; Showing that Caucasian in the South of the United States had turned away from the horrible and lonely path which it had shared with the apartheid regime or segregationist government of South Africa (pp. 118-147 and 121-122). He sees a common problem concerning South Africa and the Southern United states and advocates similar solutions to remedy the problem. The stark similarity of segregation laws in is shown in Woodward’s book in which he speaks of Maurice S. Evans, an Englishman who moved to South Africa and eventually wrote a book on the Southern United States where he found the systems “Strikingly similar” (pp 111). In his words:

The separation of the races in all social matters is as distinct in South Africa as in the Southern States. There are separate railway cars….and no black man enters hotel, theatre, and public Library or Art gallery. How often, the very conditions I had left were reproduced before my eyes. The thousands of miles away melted away and Africa was before me.

In Woodard’s eyes this was evidence of a horrible system being forced upon the American people of color and Evans predicted that both South Africa and the Southern States would follow a parallel course.


The final chapters of the “Strange career of Jim Crow” are entitled “The Declining Years of Jim Crow” and “The Career Becomes Stranger,” and are a bit different from the first section in that they focus on the turbulent happenings that are credited for the change in southern states. Woodward directed his thoughts and focus from southern states to the national level and speaks about the Civil Rights Movement and the federal government’s changed and encompassing commitment to racial integration and the protection of the rights of African-Americans. Woodward was also critical of racial separatism and alleged ideological incoherence of the American society (pp. 197-208).

The book tells the tale of Southern events that move from slavery, through the enactment of segregation laws and finally a move from those laws to civil rights movement in modern times. It is emblematic of the journey of how races interacts and evolve over time. It provides a moving look at how African Americans rights were oppressed and the subsequent freedom and acceptance of civil liberties that are fair and equitable to all Americans. It also challenges the views of America being a White Man’s country and shows the triumph of a return to practices where people of different color are treated similarly. Woodward book provide a review of events in America that shows that race relations can and do change and there is no inevitability of results of mind-set that ensures that one race remains subservient to another. He strives to paint a picture wherein all Americans, despite their color, can interact on a basis of equality.


Woodward, Comer Van And William S. McFeely. 2001. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Cary, NC:Oxford University Press.


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